Bury My Heart at Conference Room B: Sweat Time at Microsoft

"You just did a very bad thing," said Bill Gates, reacting to a presentation of Stan Slap's suggestions. In this excerpt from his upcoming book, "Bury My Heart at Conference Room B," consultant Stan Slap relates how Bill Gates, Steve Ballmer, and a room full of Microsoft execs loved and loathed the concept of leading with your values.

Bury My Heart at Conference Room BCheck the Oxford Dictionary of the English Language under "aggressive" and you'll find Orlando Ayala's picture. The head of worldwide sales for Microsoft is a slim, good-looking Colombian who sports a casual Caesar haircut—the haircut being the only casual thing about him. He vibrates with coiled intensity; you sense he's friendly unless he senses you're edible. Now, the guy famous for donning combat gear to whip his sales teams into a feral frenzy has pulled his top managers together for two days of Bury My Heart at Conference Room B and asked that I facilitate it personally.

The event is to be held at a local hotel when, at the last minute, Orlando switches it to a meeting room on the Microsoft campus in Redmond. I don't realize the dangerous significance of this, but his managers sure do.

Orlando's direct reports are all big gunslingers themselves, running organizations with billions of dollars in revenue responsibility and thousands of people. You'd expect them to be confident enough to handle the provocative message of Bury My Heart at Conference Room B, yet as we head into the first morning it becomes clear something is wrong. Plenty of averted eyes, anxious shuffling and nervous laughter—it's starting to make me nervous. I stop to ask, "What, exactly, is the problem?"

"It's this room," they mutter. "You don't know this room. We know this room. We call it The Slaughterhouse. This is where Orlando brings us to beat on us about our sales performance. We can hear the screams; we can see the blood dripping down the walls."

Oh, fabulous. And here I am telling them to get in touch with their groovy selves and bring the best of who they are to work. It's like telling a bunch of cows to get in touch with their groovy selves and bring the best of who they are to McDonald's.

We wobble on but things are still way off. I say, tell me your core values as human beings. They respond with the likes of "Freedom," "Spirituality," "Altruism." I say, now pretend I'm one of your employees and tell me what that means to me. They respond with the likes of "I have core values of freedom, spirituality and altruism. So where are we going, my people? We are going to whack the snot out of sales projections! We are going to crush anyone in our way like the insects they are! What you need to do is work harder, work faster and work more!"

Sigh. Let's try it again. Take 17.

The next morning I tell them to go ahead and call Security now because I'm not leaving until they get it. If you really want to meet sales and revenue targets you have to bring your personal values to work, I insist—for yourselves and for the company. We move further, dig deeper and at last the room shifts; everyone can feel the message finally sink in. "I'll never be able to see my job the same way again," says one, shaking her head and others, markedly including Orlando, agree.

Game. Set. Match. Whew.

THE NEXT DAY

Stan SlapMicrosoft is a juicy new client for my company and since I had to be in Redmond anyway, I've agreed to stay and facilitate another session later that week for a different group. On the day in between I'm talking with Mike Creamer, Orlando's business manager, when Orlando walks up. "The last two days have had a lot of impact on me," he says. "I want you to put some thoughts together about how it can impact the entire company."

"That was nice," I offer after he leaves. "I should do that."

"He means do it now," Mike advises. "Orlando's leaving early tomorrow morning for a strategic planning session with Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer and wants to take it with him."

I don't get to the hotel until about 11:00 that night, when I remember I've promised Orlando the email. I start fooling around with some rough draft thoughts and ... get into it. What begins as basic recommendations soon becomes a blazing indictment about every wrong move made that I think poses a threat to Microsoft's continued viability as the leading market contender. At one point, I write, "There isn't an empire in history that thought they were going to fall before they fell."

"That's good," I say out loud and, brimming with positive self-reinforcement, continue to feverishly type away. Not that I have any intention of sending any of it; I'm just warming up the laptop.

"You know what your problem is, Orlando? ... " I pound out, nodding and cackling to myself.

Hours later, I've finally got it all out of my system. I lean back to stretch before starting on the real e-mail. And watch in horror as some deviant muscle memory causes a finger to leap up entirely of its own accord and press the Send button.

OhmyGOD!

Great. Just great. What seemed like pithy insight a minute ago has been transformed with a single twitchy digit into client relationship suicide. "I'll handle this one," I'd bragged to my own company's managers as I'd saddled up for Redmond. "Listen and learn," I'd insisted to rolling eyes.

What am I going to do now? What can I say? "Orlando, did my brother just send you an e-mail? He's back on the meds but I'm thinking that giving him my password wasn't such a great idea." By now it's almost 3:00 a.m. and I'm not thinking too clearly—although I'm real clear I've got to get to Orlando before that e-mail gets to the entire Microsoft executive team as Introducing the Gospel According to Stan Slap. I call the front desk and ask for a wake-up call for 5 a.m. "That's only two hours from now, sir," the desk clerk informs me helpfully.

MEANWHILE

Orlando is only hours away from leaving for the remote facility deep in the Oregon woods, where Gates, Ballmer and the company's eighty top executives are gathered to plot global strategies in a meeting titled "Microsoft: Software Dynamo." Key to the plan is Orlando's presentation of sales opportunities. It's one of the first on the agenda.

MEANWHILE

The hotel phone shrilly announces the wake-up call and I stumble back to the laptop. An hour later I've composed a fairly lame e-mail that informs Orlando that while I'm not taking anything back, one could, of course, read what I sent a couple of different ways—or, better yet, one could not read it at all. I move to send the e-mail, intentionally this time, and can't get online. Aaargh! Wireless isn't available in the hotel and I'm under the desk chiseling through the wall with a room service fork in search of frayed cords when I realize I have no time for this; I have a roomful of people waiting for me. I glance at the clock by the bedside and see that the phone next to it is off the cradle from my fumbling it after the wake-up call, and that's why I haven't been able to get online. I hurriedly send the second message to Orlando.

MEANWHILE

Orlando has already begun his presentation—by announcing to the room, "I don't want to talk about sales. I want to talk about me. I want to talk about the fact that I can't be real in this company."

He is greeted by stunned, suspicious silence. This guy looks like Orlando. This guy sounds like Orlando. This guy is not Orlando.

"Let me tell you a little bit about myself, about where I come from and how I know what's real to me," Orlando gushes on, in full Jerry McGuire mode. "If I can't live my own deepest values at work, and if we can't be real to ourselves and to each other, then how are we ever going to be real to our customers?" he pleads.

Silence.

Orlando goes for the big close. "There isn't an empire in history that thought it was going to fall before it fell."

Silence. And the room explodes.

The eighty top managers in the company rise to give him a five-minute standing ovation. Everybody is lustily cheering—"I'm hurting, too!" Everybody except Bill Gates, who sits glaring stonily at him.

"You just did a very bad thing, Orlando," Gates says. "You just said we are bad people. We are not bad people."

"Bill," Orlando says, "if that's what you can say to me after your top eighty executives just gave me a standing ovation, I don't belong in this company," and starts to walk out. "Wait a minute, wait a minute!" yells Ballmer.

MEANWHILE

"I wonder how it's going with Orlando," I ponder idly, chewing a croissant during a break in my own morning's meeting.

TODAY

Eighteen-year Microsoft veteran and Senior Vice President Pieter Knook was formerly president of the Asia Pacific region and now manages one of the company's seven major business units. "I was in the [Bury My Heart at Conference Room B] meeting earlier that week so I knew what Orlando was trying to do. I just couldn't believe he was trying to do it here. We were searching for strategies to make more money and the guy in charge of worldwide sales was saying that we didn't even have a clear sense of why any of us were at the company, but he was sure it wasn't the strategy and it wasn't the money. It got very, very tense in that room."

"I was given an hour and a half for my talk," says Orlando. "It lasted twenty minutes. I said shame on us for putting ourselves in the position we're in, taking this kind of fire about our business practices and our integrity. We can't be different on the outside than we are as people on the inside. I said I personally feel my values are being compromised and I will not be part of that, no matter what."

"At first, Bill felt personally attacked, thinking what he had built in his company was being threatened. It was exactly the opposite," insists Knook. "It was an amazing moment, a positive impact on the entire executive staff of a large company. We decided we were going to spend all our time on this instead of the planned agenda since anything else seemed irrelevant at that point. From here was born the reincarnation of what we think the company is about and that it starts with us as human beings."

"I was very troubled the night before," admits Orlando. "I kept questioning why I suddenly felt compelled to say these things out loud. My answer was that you cannot wave a hand and say, 'Today I'm not but tomorrow I am.' Where do you draw the line? I had done a lot of thinking that week and I kept arriving at 'You can't escape from yourself.'"

He shakes his head. "Right before I started, I remember thinking, 'Let's see how real this company is.' The last thing I expected was the reaction I got. People were standing up and clapping and I didn't know what to do. There were people crying. It was the most bizarre thing I've ever seen.

"Where does the bond come from that creates common purpose?" he poses. "I agree that belief in a cause starts with believing in who you are as an individual. Every individual is capable of leaving a legacy," he says. "That legacy comes from being real at all times. The only person who can determine relevancy to yourself is you."

"How does it feel to do that?" I ask. Orlando's eyes begin to narrow with trademark intensity and ...

He smiles deeply. "I feel liberated."

Stan Slap has revolutionized performance for many of the world's most demanding organizations. His international consulting company, slap, specializes in achieving ferocious commitment in manager, employee, and customer cultures—the three groups that decide the success of any business. His client list ranges from Hewlett-Packard and Microsoft to HSBC and Viacom. His book Bury My Heart at Conference Room B: The Unbeatable Impact of Truly Committed Managers will be released by Portfolio on August 12.

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